What’s in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.
Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet (Act II. ii. 43)
What’s in a name, indeed, when a music composer finishes a work – or a collection of works – and has to make a conscious decision as to what its title should be? The established literature is rife with terms that are sometimes romantic, sometimes comic, and sometimes plain prosaic – the sky (or the earth) is the limit!
In my case, I found that, over a period of decades, where I happened to be colored my titling process to some extent. But more often than not, I let my imagination take flight irrespective of my geographical location. Speaking of which, my love of birds and small animals certainly played a fair part in my arriving at the word, or words, that truly expressed my visceral thinking in the heat of composition.
Take, for example, the hummingbird, that legend says floats free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy and celebration. Here’s an audio file of my “The Hummingbird.”
Or, the adorable little donkey of South America, el burro (dim. burrito) that is found just about everywhere in mostly Spanish-speaking lands as a symbol of quiet domesticity.
My favorite, however, from the time I was a child in New Delhi was Polly, my pet Indian parrot, which I doted on when it was kept in a capacious cage in the family’s back veranda.
But came a time, when I was so overtaken and ashamed by its cooped up existence, that I unclasped the cage-door and set it free forever……….
Oh, the thrill of so doing! It was soon followed by the pang of losing an almost constant companion when I returned from school each weekday afternoon to find a quiet empty cage awaiting me. My answer as a 12-year old was to fill that void on the family Bechstein piano with“My Prayer.”
To illustrate by example, and reflecting some of the thoughts expressed to my dear readers at the bottom of this posting, I am presenting hotlinks to three collections below bearing in their title the words sketches, vignettes and miniatures respectively.
Five World Travel Sketches:Sketches 1. Carioca 2. Viennese Musical Box 3. Gitano 4. La Chasse 5. Lyon Cathedral Six Vignettes in Praise of Nature:Vignettes 1. My Prayer 2. Songbird on a Window Sill 3. The Hummingbird 4. El Burro 5. Berceuse – La Mère et la Fille 6. Bacharach am Rhein Ten Miniatures for the Piano:Miniatures 1. Consecutive Fifths 2. Waltz in C 3. Petite Polonaise 4. Prelude in A minor 5. Marcia alla Jacopo 6. Galop 7. Ballad in A 8. Theme and One Variation 9. Tanochka – Chaconne in A 10. A.L.E.X.
The last-mentioned miniatures include a variety of musical forms with well-known nomenclatures that are found in old and new world classical compositions. They are largely based on the first names of friends and family members as explained in the following video, which selects one name, A.L.E.X., as an example of how I do it: Tune on a Name
Before we depart the month of August, let’s not forget to honor the birthday of that incomparable French composer, Claude Debussy. Born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye in France on August 22, 1862, he attended the Paris Conservatory from 1874 to 1884. In the summers of 1881 and 1882 he was the household pianist for Mme. von Meck, Tchaikovsky’s patroness. In 1884 he won the Prix de Rome, but his stay in Italy was not to his liking: the criticisms that his musical compositions were subjected to by the Conservatory authorities caused him to cut short his time there and he returned to his beloved Paris without completing the mandatory three years in Rome. August 22, 1862- March 25, 1918
In the French capital Debussy was inspired by the provocative blossoming of new poetry and new horizons of expression in music and the arts: Eric Satie, on the one hand; Manet and Renoir, on the other. By adopting such devices as the whole-tone scale, unresolved discords, and new ideas of tone and color, Debussy had arrived at musical Impressionism – in short, he’d become a painter of music! His influence as a true innovator affected the musical output of an entire generation.
Among his new-style works was the orchestral prelude The Afternoon of a Faun (L’Aprés-midi d’un faune) composed in 1894. Inspired by a poem by Mallarme, this was Debussy’s first masterwork for orchestra. The opening solo flute theme evokes the dream of nymphs by a half-asleep faun: The Afternoon of a Faun
For piano, there are so many wonderful pieces one could point out that are worthy of performance by children and adults alike, but from a personal standpoint I would single out Deux Arabesques (1888) and Children’s Corner (1908). The latter is a suite of children pieces written for the composer’s daughter, Chou-Chou. Debussy provided English titles for the work’s individual movements to enable an English governess to play games with a French child. Perhaps, the last movement, Golliwog’s Cakewalk, is the most famous and is derived from a dance popular in America in the 1890’s. (By the way, you’ll hear a ‘quote’ in it taken from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde – no kidding!)
I cannot end this brief memory of a great French composer without paying tribute to his masterful 24 preludes, without doubt the quintessence of his Impessionism and his painterly genius. Collected in two books of 12 preludes each over the period 1910-1913, each piece was given a title by Debussy, but placed at the end of the composition as he didn’t want to influence the listener by any preconceived notion as to its content.
My personal favorites from the time I was a ‘preteen’ are The Girl with the Flaxen Hair (La Fille aux cheveux de lin) and The Engulfed Cathedral (La Cathédrale engloutie) found in Book I. The former is a tender evocative melody, one of Debussy’s most popular; the latter was inspired by a Breton legend about the cathedral of Ys which is said to rise out of and return to the sea to the sounds of tolling bells and chanting priests:
Put it down to the dog days of summer – and kite-flying!
But with the enervating month of August two-thirds the way through and with triple-digit temperatures hopefully behind us, I thought I’d share a simple post with you.
You, dear readers, number over 12,000 since January 2015, when I first began to put “some of my thoughts, written down” and posted them in the blogosphere. Since that time, many of you have urged me to seek support of my site and my writings by way of donations.
My blog is about my life. It’s about what I’ve learned through the span of my life. It’s about things I love, and things I know and things I have experienced. I am humbled that so many of you want to join with me in my reflections. If you like what you find here, if it inspires or informs or amuses you, then I am content.
It would mean a lot to me if you would please consider making a donation of US $5.00, $10.00, $15.00, or whatever amount you deem fit to sustain my work.
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What – or rather – where on Earth is the strange phenomenon of *Horology, treated as a hubristic statement of home pride or chauvinism, finding its footing? The latest of, yes, many such nationalistic effusions expressed through the medium of a country’s standard time is in the mountainous country of Nepal, home of Everest and many other touristic destinations for hardy climbers. Future visitors will now have to adjust their watches by 15 minutes when entering from India, because of a self-declared horological difference of political opinion in the northeastern Himalayan retreat with its huge subcontinental neighbor to the south. [Reported the other day: Nepal is now 5 hours and 45 minutes ahead of GMT because the people wanted the meridian of Nepal Standard Time at Gaurishankar, a mountain east of Kathmandu. That means that the country’s clocks are 15 minutes later than the time in India. One national joke is that Nepalis are always 15 minutes late anyway!]
What – or rather – why has the world come to this when apparently the science of time is taking a back seat to the irrationality of irredentism. But let’s not point a finger at the Nepalese only, among whom I’m sure the Sherpa community couldn’t care a fig so long as its incoming flow of tourist dollars during the height of the climbing season is not affected by missed plane connections to and from Kathmandu because of those pesky 15 minutes.
So you might well ask which other countries are guilty of what
one might term ‘triple-H-ism?”
Hermetically-sealed North Korea comes to mind for its obvious attempt to distinguish itself from neighboring South Korea and China even though it’s sandwiched between them. It has announced that effective August 15 it’s setting its clocks back by 30 minutes to create a new Pyongyang Time – breaking from a time standard imposed by what it called “wicked Japanese imperialists” more than a century ago. The change will put the standard time in North Korea at GMT+8:30, 30 minutes behind South Korea which, like Japan, is at GMT+9:00.
Perish the thought, but so-called Standard Time as applied to various nations around the world no longer stands on terra firma anymore. You’ll have to look up the Internet to discover the variants around the globe, some of which will surprise you.
Not only that, it doesn’t necessarily take a country to row its own canoe timewise. Consider a small estate like Sandringham, privately owned by Queen Elizabeth II.
Historically speaking, at the instance of one of its royal occupants, it marched to a different drummer. Yes, the British Throne in the last century enjoyed – for 35 years, I might add – its own Sandringham Time quite separate from Greenwich Mean Time. After all, the royals repaired to their fulsome 20,000-acre pad in Norfolk for their home away from home – er, country house away from palace – to enjoy hunting: such was the late King Edward VII’s fondness for it that he ordered all the clocks set half an hour ahead of GMT to increase the amount of evening daylight available for hunting as well as time away from his onerous duties as overseer of the empire – where the sun never set in any case. Those, indeed, were the halcyon days!
That tradition of Sandringham Time was maintained from 1901 until 1936, when the new King Edward VIII demonstrated he was “a new broom” at Buckingham Palace and swept away the outdated custom at his Norfolk estate.
* For those not in the know, Horology is the art or science of measuring time. Clocks, watches, clockwork, sundials, hourglasses, clepsydras, timers, time recorders, marine chronometers, and atomic clocks are all examples of instruments used to measure time.
For the Record – and before you get zoned out of all things related to Time Zones: The idea of a country setting its own time is not new. Originally in the United States towns set their own clocks. The advent of the railroad forced cities to adopt more standard times. So the U.S. went from more than 100 time zones to the four zones we now have.
Universally there are 24 time zones, one for each line of the 24 hours it takes for the Earth to make a full rotation. They are loosely marked as longitudinal lines. However, historically countries have individually decided time zones themselves, often for ease in communication and transportation.
For instance, China and India both have several lines of longitude but have chosen to have only one time for their respective countries. In China the entire country sets its time to Beijing Time despite physically spanning five time zones. Because it covers so much territory those living in the far western province of Xinjiang means that they start their day and end work late: A normal lunch hour begins at 2pm – and in the summer you could see sunset at midnight!
Most in the USA are not aware that some countries, such as North Korea reported above, have now decided to use zones that are 15, 30 or 45 minute ahead or behind of GMT.
In 2007, Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez decided to turn the country’s clocks back by half an hour so that there would be a “more fair distribution of the sunrise” to residents.
That’s socialism for you!
Various Sources, including Wikipedia, have been used in this last section entitled “For the Record.”
Probably the best known pianist in the world, Franz Liszt, who was also a prolific composer, died 129 years ago on July 31. As a lifelong Lisztian, I’m devoting his death anniversary this day to recalling all the intersections that my life over the past 70 years have had with his seminal compositions.
[b. 10/22/1811-d. 7/31/1886]
Liszt was born in Raiding, Hungary, on October 22, 1811. After receiving some instruction from his father, who was a steward in the service of the Esterházy family, patrons of Haydn, the young Liszt made his first appearance as a pianist when he was nine. Several Hungarian noblemen raised a fund to send him to Vienna, where he studied the piano with Carl Czerny and composition with Antonio Salieri. His Vienna debut on December 1, 1822 was a succès fou.
In 1823 he went to Paris and on March 8, 1824, gave his first concert there, becoming at once an idol of the city. That summer he also made highly successful appearances in London, where he was commanded to play for King George IV. He continued to concertize for the next few years throughout France, England and Switzerland. Then, in 1827, the death of his father led him to turn his fortune over to his mother and turn to religion. But soon after 1830, his intimate associations with Chopin, Berlioz and Paganini, inspired him to return to music that was beginning to be filled with the Romantic spirit sweeping Europe at the time.
Paganini alone, with his devilishly dazzling virtuosity on the violin imbued in Liszt a passion to become the Paganini of the piano – the consummate master of the keyboard, no less! After an intensive two-year work on his technique, he returned fully formed to the concert stage in 1833 and was universally hailed as one of the greatest piano virtuosos of his day.
Affairs of the heart and his wandering eye derailed his concert career for some years, but when he returned to concertizing his performances were triumphant wherever he went. The years 1839-1847 – when he covered half the (European) world – were his Wanderjahre (or Years of Travel) wherein his showmanship was inextricably combined with profound musicianship. Indeed, he was the first modern piano virtuoso, who instead of requiring the collaboration of an orchestra or assisting artists, actually gave solo concerts with confidence in his ability and chutzpah to command the attention of his audience throughout an entire program, however long and demanding.
In 1848, and by then ensconced in Weimar, Liszt was appointed Kapellmeister to the Grand Duke. There, our hero gave outstanding performances of opera and orchestral music, which emphasized new music and unrecognized composers. Even then, his espousal ofavant garde music, especially that of Berlioz and Wagner, didn’t sit well with the concert-going public – how true even today with our own concert audiences!
In 1850, Liszt wrote a set of three nocturnes, all entitled Liebestraum (Love’s Dream.) The third in A-flat major is one of his most celebrated piano works, and its sentimentality and tenderness are characteristic of the other two pieces in this form. It was also the first piece by Liszt that I learnt as a youngster in my early teens and it hooked me for life as a lover of his compositions for piano: Here is a good version of it appearing on YouTube: Liebestraum No. 3
By 1859 Liszt found Weimar increasingly at loggerheads with him and his championing of new music. He saw the writing on the wall, abandoned Weimar after two years , and in 1861 literally found refuge in religion by moving to Rome. However, he continued composing, mainly for the piano, and also devoted himself to teaching the piano to students from all around the world.
Then, in 1886, he gave several concerts in England, including one for Queen Victoria. Later, he was at Bayreuth for the Wagner Festival where he fell ill and died soon after – reportedly a victim of pneumonia.
Both as a man and a musician, Liszt had grandeur and greatness. On the one hand, he was always aware of his immediate audience, playing to it with all the drama, triviality and superficiality he could muster on the fly. Yet, he was supremely capable of rising to great heights, playing music filled with poetry and majesty.
Liszt was no saint. He was someone with serious flaws, but no one can deny that he was a great composer whose influence cannot be overestimated. Consider that he invented the tone poem, or symphonic poem; he brought new drama to orchestral and piano writing, new vitality to program music, and he ushered in a new harmonic language.
For the record, the best-known of Liszt’s symphonic poems are Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne, based on Victor Hugo, Les Préludes, based on Lamartine, works based on Byron’s Tasso and Mazeppa, and Prometheus, with the so-called Faust Symphony in Three Character-Sketches after Goethe and the Symphony on Dante’s Divina commedia. Other orchestral works include two episodes from Lenau’s Faust, the second the First Mephisto Waltz (to which a second was added 20 years later, in 1881).
Liszt wrote two piano concertos: the first in E-flat major (1849) has been in my repertoire ever since I first performed it in Calcutta in 1966 with the Calcutta Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Jacob conducting. Liszt’s other works for piano and orchestra include Totentanz (‘Dance of Death’) and Fantasy on Hungarian Folk-Melodies. Six of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, written for piano, were effectively arranged for orchestra by Franz Doppler, revised by Liszt.
In addition to original piano music Liszt also made many transcriptions of the work of other composers and wrote works based on national themes. The violinist Paganini was the immediate inspiration for the Études d’exécution transcendante d’après Paganini, dedicated to Clara Schumann, wife of the composer Robert Schumann, and based on five of Paganini’s 24 Caprices for solo violin and the last movement of his Violin Concerto No. 2 (‘La campanella’). The Transcendental Studies, revised in 1851 as Études d’exécution transcendante, form a set of 12 pieces, including ‘Wilde Jagd’ (‘Wild Hunt’), ‘Harmonies du soir’ (‘Evening Harmony’) – another favorite of mine – and ‘Chasse-Neige’ (‘Snow-plough’). The three collections later given the title Années de pèlerinage (‘Years of Pilgrimage’) chronicle his wanderings from Switzerland in the first book to Italy in the second two; they form a series of evocative poetic pictures, inspired by landscape, poems and works of art. The earlier volumes stem from the years of wandering with an early love of Liszt’s life, Marie d’Agoult, and the last from the final period of his life, when he was based in Rome. The Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, written between 1845 and 1852, represent, in the 10 pieces included, something of the composer’s lasting religious feelings. These feelings are also evident in the Légendes of 1863, the first of the two representing St Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds and the second St. Francis de Paul walking on the water. (I have performed this work often because of its sheer pianism.) The remarkable Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, based on a theme from a Bach cantata, mourns the death of his elder daughter Blandine. His Fantasia and Fugue on the letters of ‘Bach’ (B flat – A – C – H, the last being B natural in English notation) was originally written for organ.
Liszt wrote one sonata – a work in one movement that was considered novel in its form at the time. [That was a favorite of mine and my full live broadcast over WXXI, Rochester NY, in 1976 can be heard here. I had first publicly performed the demanding work at the Franz Liszt Conservatory Concert Hall in Budapest 20 years earlier.]
The Hungarian Rhapsodies, eventually appearing as a set of 19 pieces, are based on a form of art music familiar in Hungary and fostered by gypsy musicians, although these works are not, as Liszt thought, a recreation of true Hungarian folk-music. (The No. 12 was a particular favorite of mine.) The Rapsodie espagnole makes use of the well-known La folia theme, used by Corelli and many other Baroque composers, and the jota aragonesa. Transcriptions of his own orchestral and choral compositions include a version of the second of his three Mephisto Waltzes, works supporting legends that had once dogged Paganini concerning diabolical assistance in performance. Of the many other transcriptions for piano, those of the Beethoven symphonies are among the most remarkable. There are a number of operatic transcriptions and fantasies. These include Réminiscences de Don Juan, based on Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and a dozen or so based on the work of his off-and-on friend and son-in-law Wagner.
Sacred Choral Music
While associated primarily with instrumental music, piano works and orchestral symphonic poems, Liszt also wrote a quantity of sacred choral music. This ranges from his patriotic oratorio The Legend of St Elisabeth to a whole range of liturgical and devotional works in which he sought to reform Catholic church music from the prevailing sentimentality of the period.
Although his skill as an organist could not match his abilities as a pianist, Liszt nevertheless took a strong interest in the organ and contributed to the repertoire of the instrument with works that make some demands on technical virtuosity.
Sources: Wikipedia, Encyclopedia of Concert Music by David Ewen
Afterword One of the great modern chroniclers of the man that was Liszt has been the Canadian musicologist, Alan Walker, and professor of music at the esteemed local Macmaster College. I had the pleasure of attending one of his well-attended long-weekend seminars at his home in Ancaster-Hamilton, Ontario. There were many Lisztians – in every sense of the word – from North America and Europe who crowded into a large living-room area in the middle of which was a gleaming grand player piano that was ‘programmed’ to reproduce one of Liszt’s set of concert pieces that he had actually performed at a recital in Europe on one of his acclaimed tours. There followed some erudite as well as homespun observations on the ‘canned’ music by the more vocal attendees, including the late Harold Schonberg, Chief Music Critic of the New York Times.
After one of those soirées I strolled with Harold along the wooded lanes nearby Alan’s house, dropped in on one of the roadside cafés and traded opinions on what had transpired earlier in the day. Since I possessed his popular book “The Great Pianists” published in 1965, I twigged him about Chapter XX that he devotes to “The Lisztianers and Leschetitzkianers” and where he discusses the current penchant for tempo rubato. Harold held firm to his argument that pupils of both Liszt and Leschetisky just couldn’t do without it as they were almost to a man or woman romantic pianists – with two prominent exceptions, Schnabel and Horszowski!